On Chelsea Manning and Gender Identity (Part I)

In recent news, Chelsea Manning is second perhaps only to Edward Snowden in controversial fame for leaking classified information of the United States government. As the important details of her legal case are currently beyond my sphere of knowledge, I cannot write competently on that matter, although it would certainly make for pertinent material on this blog in the future. For now, let’s examine another aspect of her public life: her identification as a woman.

The world knew her as “Bradley” when her spread of military intelligence first made news, but now, for her own personal reasons, she has stated openly something she has — according both to her own testimony and secondary sources — known about herself for years. The dimensions of her personality and psychology align more strongly with the “female” classification of gender our society has shaped, than with the “male” one.

To the vast majority of readers, even those of us cisgender folk acquainted with transgender individuals, this may seem a foreign concept. The common status quo is that a person is born a certain sex and is generally comfortable with presenting in a manner coherent with this sex, at least as far as society is concerned. Considering somewhere between 120,000 (calculated from a rather conservative ratio) and 700,000 Americans are transgender, this is an evidently naïve view.

As explained quite simply and intuitively in the above video, we may reasonably speak of a distinction between sex and gender. The former is biological, referring to a person’s reproductive anatomy, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics. Although the debate over nature versus nurture with respect to gender (let alone all of human psychology) marches on, it is experientially apparent to all of us that cultures have for better or worse categorized physical aspects, habits, interests, personality traits, relationship dynamics, emotional expression, professional roles, and fashion within two boxes: male and female. Many presumptions about the correlation between these elements and sex have proven false. The existence of male nurses and female soldiers is proof of that.

Despite these errors, humans have tended to find gender a meaningful idea nonetheless, including in ways that are not necessarily dependent on sex or on stereotypes. Though it is an imperfect approximation, American car insurance companies find it prudent to charge higher rates for males such as myself, because of an apparent statistical correlation between gender and reckless driving tendencies. Less demoralizing is the use of gender labels to simplify communication and romantic relationships; when you’re a desperate soul on eHarmony, it’s probably convenient to filter out those whom you have no interest in dating by virtue of features we like to classify under genders.

So where does all this leave someone like Chelsea Manning? Well, imagine that you have found yourself with a certain physiological construction that virtually all of the humans with whom you interact assume implies a host of predictions about your behavior. Some of these predictions are of your innate character, others are expected of you in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, but the overwhelming majority of them are wrong. They contradict who you are as a person with the basic freedom to express yourself harmlessly. This disconnect between your self and the suit into which others try to fit you cripples your confidence, happiness, social fulfillment, and ability to have relationships with partners.

That, within a margin of error attributable to the variability of trans men and women’s experiences, is Manning’s position, the implications of which we will consider tomorrow. This is the predicament not just of one person but of many, the best approach to which is controversial because it raises questions of the meaning of gender and the extent of people’s control over their bodies and identities. What is that approach? We’ll think through several perspectives in the next post.